Jean Shepherd
KYW Radio


While many of us remember storyteller Jean Parker Shepherd for his nightly broadcasts over WOR in New York City, quite a lot of Philadelphians think of him during his two years here in Philadelphia at KYW Radio.

He was born in July of 1921 in Chicago. We have in our archives, different versions of Jean's obit from several different sources. They give different dates of birth. We heard from Steve Glazer, a historian on the life of Shepherd. He sent us documentation that confirms that Jean was born on July 26th. He was born in Chicago and grew up in Hammond, a windy city suburb.

Jean Shepherd liked to refer to himself as a humorist and that may be the best description if you are looking for just one word, but he was so much more.

He spent 22 years at WOR Radio (starting in 1955) but he also wrote books and appeared on Broadway. The Associated Press said that Shepherd (called Shep by his many fans) served in the US Army during the Second World War with the signal corp. Wikipedia confirms this and said that he served from 1942 to 1944 with a T/5 rank (Technician 5th grade). The AP also reported that it was during Jean's military career when Shepherd developed a distaste for authority. Much of this became apparent in his later radio days.

Steve Glazer also told us: " Shepherd worked at local Hammond, Indiana, radio station WJOB as an announcer while still in high school, returning there in 1945 upon his discharge from the U.S. Army, as documented by the 1945 Hammond City Directory."

Shepherd always liked to tell about his early days in broadcasting at WSAI in Cincinnati, Ohio. He worked there in 1947 and again from 1949 to spring of 1951. In between, he worked elsewhere in that market. He was at WSAI in September of 1949. The station aired a seven hour program. The subject was who was "baseball's greatest talker." Jean Shepherd served as "umpire."

Then, he came to Philadelphia and KYW Radio during the spring of 1951. He stayed here for a couple of years and then moved on to WLW back in Cincinnati. In the beginning of 1955, he moved to WOR Radio.

He had a TV show in Ohio called "Rear Bumper." According to Wikipedia, Shep said that he was the NBC Network's main choice to replace Steve Allen when Allen moved into prime time from the original Tonight Show. Shepherd said that the network had to offer the program to Jack Paar first and Jack accepted.

Shepherd had several marriages including one to actress Lois Nettleton. Jean passed away during October of 1999. Shepherd historian Steve Glazer believes that Jean definitely died on October 16th.

On Friday evening, November 22, 2013, Jean Shepherd was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia's "Hall of Fame."

Broadcast Pioneers member Kenn Venit wrote for us some of his thoughts about Jean Shepherd. This is originally appeared in our November 2013 newsletter. Here's what Kenn wrote:

"Excelsior, You fathead!
"Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories."
"Radio drama is dead. What I do is radio drama."

The immortal words of Jean Shepherd – but, OK, maybe the last one is not exactly immortal.

However, almost half-a-century later, I still remember them from Shep's speech on Friday, May 8, 1964, at the Temple University Communications & Journalism Annual Banquet (better known as the WRTI Banquet). It was held at the Alden Park Manor on Wissahickon Drive. I was 19, and one of the many "undercover'' young listeners to his late-night radio broadcasts on 50,000 watt WOR 710 New York. (Shep worked at 50,000-watt KYW Philadelphia from 1951-1953, but I was in single digits.)

As Shep stepped to the microphone, a WRTI engineer played his theme song, the Bahn Frei Polka," by Eduard Strauss, with the U.S. Cavalry Bugle First Call at the start of the Polka. I still listen to it now and then.

I was in awe just being in the same room, and amazed that he was so at ease in a room full of strangers. He questioned why Temple University still had a course in radio drama, theorizing maybe it was because some faculty members were old-fashioned (I think he said it another way) or behind the times. Professor Del Dusenbury, who taught the required radio drama course, was obviously shocked and displeased. I think he left the room at that point.

Shep worked unscripted that night as he did every night on the radio. For the life of me, I can't remember what else he said to us in that speech, but in a publicity release which had been sent to me for use in the May 7, 1964 Temple NEWS, he was described as someone who "presents ideas in the form of conversation and drama."

He also used sound effects (some emanating from his mouth), and music to help convey his thoughts. You created your own images as you listened.

After his speech (which, as I recall was recorded on reel-to-reel audiotape by WRTI-FM student staffers), Shep signed autographs, mingled with students, and showed absolutely no signs of being an egotist. He seemed somewhat surprised at how many of us at Temple were faithful listeners (he was on WOR from 1955-1977).

Shep died on October 16, 1999. Among the many online tributes to him was one from a fan, Prof. Rob Kleidman of Ohio State University, who said a colleague of his claimed the best evaluation as to what a teacher meant to a student comes years later.

If we "evaluate" Shep as having been a "teacher," I can say he did a great job teaching me, and so many others, about how to combine drama and conversation to be an effective storyteller. I actually use some of his techniques in my journalism classrooms, at times playing "roles" and always engaging my students (it's now called being "interactive") in discussions requiring critical thinking. Early in the semester, I interview some in front the class, take some notes, and then tell a story about them, unscripted. They also learn that I can take that verbal version, and convert it to another medium, with or without pictures.

Shep worked in radio, TV, theater, and as an author, musician, and public speaker. He was "converged" before the word was defined as it is today.

His signature motto, "Excelsior!" was his reminder to us to always be higher, loftier, better than we thought we were or could ever be. His polka theme song, "Bahn Frei," translates to "make way!" – which he did.

As to whether Shep's words are "immortal," you can still hear many of them thanks to online podcasts and airchecks. And when I hear the "Bahn Frei Polka" (starting with the U.S. Cavalry Bugle First Call), I go back to a place in time when I would fall asleep listening to someone who told stories – not necessarily bedtime ones, but about people, places, and ideas I could dream about, one way or another.

Thanks, Mr. Shepherd…

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